Tojo Hideki held the premiership of Japan for a little less than three years, but to many, he came to personify Japanese militarism in the same way that Hitler personified Nazism and Mussolini personified Fascism. Beyond this, similarities are few, but during his short term in office he led his country into a catastrophic war. Tojo saw in Japan’s military the model for bringing a new level of order and prosperity to Japan, but in the end, he was unable to bring order to the military itself, even with three government offices in his hands.
Tojo was born in 1884 in Tokyo. His father was a general, and the younger Tojo began his own military career with study at the Military Academy and then the War College. Known better for his assiduousness than for any particular talent, he managed to graduate with honors in 1915. His early career concentrated mainly in bureaucratic roles, with the bulk of the 1920’s being spent with the staff college and the main administration of the army.
In 1929, he was given command of the First Infantry Regiment, which he exercised until 1931. There followed several years of work with with the General Staff, and then another short stint in field command, this time with the 24th Infantry Brigade. His rigorous nature earned him the nickname “Razor.”
His efforts were rewarded in 1935 with the command of the military police (Kempei) of the Kwantung Army. The position suited his nature; the location offered him great opportunity. The Kwantung Army was stationed in that part of Manchuria that had been taken from the Russians in 1904-05. Since 1919, it acted largely on its own initiative, and became a proving ground for the most competitive officers. Often, it took action without conferring with Tokyo.
Tojo opposed unsanctioned activity. He affiliated himself with the “Control Faction,” or Toseiha, which supported Japanese military expansion but also insisted on strict discipline. As leader of the Kempei, he sought to rein in the excesses of the even more militant “Imperial Way Faction” or Kodoha.
In 1937, he took his next step by accepting the role of Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army. That same year, he also commanded a pair of brigades in action in Inner Mongolia. The Control Faction advocated war with China, but specifically with an eye toward proving Japan’s strength and inducing China to accept a submissive pose toward Japan. In the long run, Tojo believed that the partnership he envisaged would serve both countries and contribute to Asian stability. Not everyone in the Japanese Army agreed, however; notably, he was opposed by General Ishiwara Kanji. In September, Ishiwara was expelled from the General Staff, and the militarist elements dominated the Army.
Over the next several years, Tojo rose in the government by fits and starts. In 1938, he was appointed Vice-Minister for War. Eight months later, he lost that position when the first Konoe government collapsed. He spent a year and a half as Inspector General for army aviation, then joined a new Konoe government in July 1940 as Minister of War. Here he played an important role in several fateful decisions, from the refusal to countenance any relief in the war on China, to the alliance with Germany and Japan in 1940, to the decision to attack the United States at the end of 1941 if no diplomatic resolution could be found. Tojo had a hand in all of these decisions, but not the final word; throughout the war, the collective decisions of Japanese military leaders dominated key decisions.
One example of this fact precipitated the fall of the final Konoe government and Tojo’s own ascendancy. Negotiations with the United States reached an impasse, with the United States insisting on concessions in China and the Japanese Army refusing to accept this. The Army and the Navy differed sharply on the wisdom of fighting the Americans, and unable to reconcile the elements of his government, Prince Konoe resigned. The Emperor asked Tojo to create a new government, giving him the freedom to pursue a course for war if he deemed it necessary.
Tojo’s views on war with the United States were more fatalistic than enthusiastic. He felt that such a war would happen eventually, if for no other reason than that American demands concerning China were considered unacceptable. He understood that the war could go very badly, and in any event it would be long and difficult, but he considered it the kind of risk that must be undertaken. In the event, the Navy’s reservations proved accurate, and Tojo found himself in the unenviable position of trying to govern a country caught in a losing struggle.
Domestically, he undertook measures to tighten government control over Japanese society. He never managed, however, to bend the other power bases to his will. As the war developed, and both the Army and the Navy needed access to the dwindling pool of resources, he named himself Minister of Munitions. This stood in addition to the roles of Premier and Minister of War; in February 1944, he added the position of Army Chief of Staff. Even so, he remained stymied by differences with other officials and setbacks in the war effort. Five months later, he resigned from the government entirely.
Tojo spent the remainder of the war as a private citizen. In September 1945, he was arrested by the Americans. He tried to avoid this by shooting himself in the chest, but failed to inflict a fatal wound. After recovering from his injury, he was put on trial for war crimes. Eager to absolve the Emperor of any guilt, Tojo claimed responsibility, and accordingly, he was convicted on multiple counts including conspiracy, aggressive war and crimes against humanity. On December 22, 1948, he was hanged at Sugamo Prison.
Assessing his role in the Second World War remains difficult. He certainly was involved in many of the key decisions of the Empire of Japan, not least among them war against China and the United States. At the same time, his reputation suffers from association with Hitler and Mussolini, though he did not have their power, methods or responsibility. Still, as War Minister he was responsible for the conduct of the Japanese Army, in which hideous atrocities were committed routinely during the war. Accordingly, recent private efforts to balance his reputation have met with considerable controversy.
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al. A Dictionary of the Second World War. Bedrick, 1990
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